Monday, May 30, 2011

An Autodidact's Summer Writing Course

When I went on vacation at the end of April, I took a vacation from writing.  Although I have been back from vacation for over a month, I still haven’t resumed work on my work-in-progress.  I suppose I should call it my work-in-limbo.  It's funny that it has gone from a WIP, which makes me think of a whip cracking me into action, to a WIL, whereby I am trying to passively will my story to completion. 
The worst part of all this wasted time is that my children will be out of school for summer in less than two weeks.  Summertime is a ten-and-a-half week stretch of non-writing for me.  You can imagine how impossible it is to work with two children under the age of ten bubbling with excitement over their freedom from school drudgery, pulling and tugging me every day, ALL day long.  I have come to accept summer as a forced hiatus, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do something that will further my writing progress.  In order to make the best use of my arrested creativity, I have decided to do a summer creative writing course. 
I know what you’re thinking, but, no, I won’t actually be going to a creative writing class with other adults, where we can happily workshop our latest bits of inspiration.  Summertime is a time for me to enjoy my kids, and I won’t be taking them to day camp or shipping them to grandma’s.  There will never be an Iowa Creative Writing Workshop for me, nor a Gotham Writers’ Workshop, nor even the closer-to-my-geographical-range Wildacres Writers' Workshop.  I accept this with no regrets.  As a middle-aged mom, I have come to terms with the fact that I have to be, well, “creative” about my creative writing aspirations.  Therefore, my creative writing workshop will be of my own making.  This summer, I will be an autodidact.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Save the Whales Bookmarks and Whale Book Speed Reviews

It's time once again for Book Phantom to return her library books, which means another bookmarking caper!  This month, I bought my bookmarks from Save the Whales, and proceeds go to protect these intelligent and graceful giants.  I won't publish the bookmark fronts on my blog due to copyright, but here's the link so you can order some yourselves (the bookmarks are at the bottom of the link page).  There are eight different whale designs to choose from, and at only fifty cents each, you can order them all for less than a cup of Starbucks or a bargain paperback.  Below are the messages I left on the backs of the bookmarks for unsuspecting book borrowers.

Gray Whale Bookmark for Grayson.  It's a memoir, so the quote about time and memory seems proper.

Sperm Whale bookmark for Moby Dick.  I'm placing this in Chapter 32: Cetology, where Melville debates whether a whale is a fish or a mammal.

North Atlantic Right Whale bookmark for Galore.  This mark is just right for a story set in the North Atlantic island of Newfoundland.  The story begins with the removal of a man from a beached whale. 
Although I don't promote my blog by placing bookmarks into children's books I borrow, I'm putting my Save the Whales sticker (a lagnaippe that came with my bookmark purchase) into Nightbirds on Nantucket.  Just a little surprise for one of the younger readers out there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ten Things I Liked About Moby Dick

I’m not reviewing Moby Dick on this post.  Now that I have completed it, I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s basically a treatise on whales and the whaling industry from a 19th century perspective stuffed between a slice of comedy (the first 100 pages) and a slice of tragedy (the last 100 pages).  I could never tell whether I was reading through Ishmael’s eyes or through Melville’s.  The author wasn’t kidding when he had Ishmael say, “…a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  Much of Moby Dick read like a dissertation.  That’s all I’m saying from a critical perspective.  Others more qualified than I can pick apart the literary nuances of the novel with greater skill and insight. 

I’d much prefer to list a few kooky things I loved about Moby Dick:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mrs. Hussey's Try Pots Inn Chowder Recipe

The first hundred pages or so of Moby Dick are surprisingly fun and humorous.  Melville devotes an entire chapter (albeit a short, three-page chapter) to chowder.  Ishmael and his pagan friend Queequeg spend the evening at the Try Pots Inn on Nantucket before shipping out on the Pequod.  The inn is famous for its chowder.  This chapter gave me such a craving for chowder, that I just had to make some.  Here's a passage from Moby Dick that's sure to get your mouth watering, too:
Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out "clam for two," disappeared.
"Queequeg," said I, "do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?"
However, a warm and savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us.  But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh! sweet friend, hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.  Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment.  Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat.  In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.  (Chapter 15, Moby Dick)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken: A Sympathy Message for Kennedy-Era American Children

Who can resist this jacket design by Edward Gorey?
For the kiddie portion of my Tales of the Whales booklist, I read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.  The story begins when ten-year old Dido Twite, an English girl, awakens from a ten-month coma aboard an American whaling ship.  When Dido recovers, Captain Casket asks her to befriend his skittish daughter, Dutiful Penitence, who refuses to leave her cabin because she is afraid of the sea.  Dido teaches the serious Quaker girl to have fun and play games.  Eventually, Dutiful, or Pen, as Dido calls her, musters her courage and leaves the cabin.
            Captain Casket is on a mission to find a pink whale he rescued from a beach in his boyhood.  He is so obsessed with finding “Rosie” the whale that he leaves Pen and Dido at his Nantucket home with Aunt Tribulation.  Aunt Trib is like the stepmother in Cinderella – she forces the girls to do chores all day and to wait on her like servants.  Dido teaches Pen to stand up against Trib, and the girl develops some backbone.
            Nightbirds is an “off-shoot” of Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, but the story won’t confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the earlier books.  Readers will like Dido because she is brave and heroic and a tad full of herself.  It’s great fun to see her give Aunt Tribulation what-for.  Aunt Tribulation (who isn’t who you think she is) is deliciously bad.  Nate the cabin boy is Dido's friend and ally.  He owns a talking bird named Mr. Jenkins who offers plenty of laughs with his silly, aristocratic squawking.  When Dido asks the bird where he’s been, he merely answers, “Your Grace’s wig needs a little more powder!”
            From what I know about Aiken’s Wolves series, the books revolve around an alternate history, where King James II was never deposed.  In her world, King James III rules, but he's constantly harassed by The Hanoverians.  This conspiring is critical to Nightbirds on Nantucket.  Dido, Nate, and Pen thwart an assassination attempt on King James III in the story’s climax.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Lovely (Whale) Bones - Field Trip to NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Happy International Museum Day!  To celebrate this event and to encourage reading books about whales, Book Phantom visited the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.  This museum has an expansive collection of whale bones hanging from the ceiling of the first floor exhibit hall.  In fact, one particular whale, a sperm whale nicknamed "Trouble", is the museum's official mascot.  This 54 foot, 100,000 pound behemoth shored on Wrightsville Beach, NC in April 1928.  It's decaying body presented quite a problem for the local health department, hence its moniker.  Over 50,000 people from six states came to view it.  Eventually, the state museum towed the whale to Topsail Beach to let nature do its work on the carcass before taking the remains back to Raleigh. According to marine biologist Todd Pusser, Trouble is one of only a few adult male sperm whales on display in the world.  Here's what's left of him:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of Galore by Michael Crummey

Michael’s Crummey’s novel Galore takes place in a small Newfoundland fishing village called Paradise Deep and the surrounding coastal wilderness in the middle 1800s.  The trusty “stranger comes to town” scenario puts the story in motion when a man with white skin and hair, naked as a newborn baby, falls out of a beached whale the local fishermen have gutted.  The man is mute and reeks of fish forever after, but his is a mystical presence, responsible for healings and bountiful catches of fish.  More importantly, however, he is a pawn in the perpetual feud between the Devine and Sellers families.  He is a scapegoat who keeps the peace by offering himself up for his "newfound" family and friends.  The reader is taken through the many rites of life in and around Paradise Deep; we share with the inhabitants strange births, bizarre illnesses, forbidden loves, loveless marriages, and peaceless deaths.  Even figurative rebirths happen – patterns are played out generation after generation.  Time marches on, but human nature is unchanged.

Here is a list of things I liked about the novel:
  • Galore is magical realism at its best; the story delivers plenty of folklore, superstition, and just plain weirdness.  Galore is never dull because the characters' almost medieval adherence to superstition makes them unpredictable.
  • In spite of their brutishness due to ignorance and poverty, the characters are likeable and sympathetic.  You both love and hate them just as they love and hate each other.  Like life, the feelings are a mixed bag.  It’s the realistic part of the story.
  • The community had a ritualized way of demanding conformity without direct confrontation with people who had broken village mores.  At Christmastime, during the feast of the Epiphany, mummers went about in costume demanding food and drink at various houses.  A man dressed as a horse, aptly named Horse Chops, was led around the host’s house by the King mummer.  The King selected a particular person from the party and asked the all-knowing Horse Chops questions about the chosen one’s personal life.  No subject was taboo.  Horse Chops would answer yes or no to these questions in front of the whole party.  In one case, the mummers shamed a boy who carried a torch for his female cousin whom he could never marry.  In another case, they called out a gay man who was in love with his best friend.  It was a way for the community to say, “We know what you are, and we think you are hurting yourself and those around you.”  Everyone seemed to accept this informal trial.  Although the questioned parties were angry or embarrassed by Horse Chops, they held no grudges.  Sociologically, this was a fascinating means of depicting the closeness of the village. 
  • Galore is a family saga, and as a genealogy freak, I loved the family history aspect of the story.  It’s interesting how generations tie together, one generation’s behaviors affecting the next.  Mistakes and patterns are often repeated by sons and daughters because people rarely talk about the past.  Crummey writes in the first chapter of Mary Tryphena’s ignorance: “She felt she’d been delivered into a universe where everyone’s knowledge but hers was complete and there was no acceptable way to acquire information other than waiting for its uncertain arrival.”  This lack of communication between parents and children, elders and descendants, new comers and old timers occurs throughout – until someone lets information slip.  Sometimes the “loose lips” will be Horse Chops with his violation of secrets.  Sometimes it’s Obediah and Azariah Trim sharing the genealogy of Paradise Deep and the Gut with the American doctor.  At the end of Galore, it’s Esther, who, in her bouts of drunkenness with sickly Abel, unlocks the mysteries of his family.  Her sharing is an act so intimate in this culture, it becomes a seduction scene.
  • There really isn’t a plot, and surprisingly, it doesn’t matter.  Galore is a story like a fable or a folktale – it has bizarre characters, magical events, heroes and villains, moral lessons.  I kept asking myself, “With no plot, how can this end?”  Not to worry.  Crummey wrapped it up in a neat little package – it was elegant, a thing of beauty, a perfect full circle.  His characters often say, “Now the once” to mean either soon, a bit later, or some unspecified point in the future:  “As if it was all the same finally, as if time was a single moment endlessly circling on itself.” I don’t want to spoil it, but this timelessness and circuitry is the key to Galore's satisfactory conclusion.
There was nothing I disliked about Galore, but here are some things other readers may find problematic:
·    There are many characters to love, not just a main character.  If you like one hero or heroine, you may find reading about multiple generations confusing.  From time to time, I had to check the family tree at the front of the book to remember familial connections, but each character is so unique and so carefully crafted, you won’t confuse them. 
·    Crummey’s characters are sexual; everyone from a fourteen year-old child bride to two prepubescent boys playing naked in the pond to a renegade Catholic priest are having sex in this book, and it’s not spoken of in polite 19th century diction as you might expect.  Delicacy in any form would be out of character for these hardened people who were taught by Father Phelan that denying one’s appetites is an insult to God. It’s not just sex either; lots of times it’s vindictive hate sex.  Nothing in this book is what it seems.  Love and hate, fear and respect all combine in a confusing net of repressed emotion – it's a chowder pot of passion and resentment threatening to boil over.
·    Crummey doesn’t use quotation marks, and in many cases he doesn’t even use complete sentences.  It didn’t trip me up because it seemed fitting for a culture unskilled in words and loath to communicate.  They are a people whose speech is truncated and curt.  Language is a blunt tool only to be used when necessary.  Jude Devine never speaks, Absalom and Henley stutter.  Esther and Abel lose their voices when they go abroad.  Levi has a stroke and slurs his speech.  The village as a whole has no “voice” in the larger world, and the inhabitants are captive to its political and economic whims.  Crummey breaks grammatical rules in service to the story. 
·    Although the narrative moves through time from about the middle 1800s to WWI, there is some going back and forth from past to present which hinges on the arrival of Judah.  Judah is like Faraday’s constant on the show LOST.  He is the common thread from beginning to end.  Also, some characters fill in backstory and regale the reader with community legend and lore.  These sections are neatly layered into the narrative, and the reminiscences into the past never seem artificial or out of place.

I could spout on and on about how much I loved this book, but if you are like me, you don’t trust gushy reviews.  All I can say is that Galore is original.  It’s well-crafted.  The word choices, the use of grammar, the symbols, the dialect, the social behaviors – every piece of the story has a reason for being as it is.  It’s one of the best books I've read this year, and it deserves readers galore.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mark Twain: Ad Man?

In her writing guide, Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin uses “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain as an example of how to “be gorgeous” with your prose.  By being “gorgeous” she’s referring to how the words sound on the page.  “Jumping Frog” has wonderful dialectical cadences that make it sound authentic and folksy if not gorgeous.
Twain wrote such great-sounding stories because he observed real people and listened.  In “Jumping Frog”, he portrayed Mr. Wheeler, a man who prattled on and on about Jim Smiley, even though it had nothing to do with the narrating character’s inquiry about one Leonidas Smiley.  This confusion is typical when talking to the elderly or the perpetually bored – they don’t know who or what you’re asking about, but they do know something and, wanting conversation and company, by golly, they will tell you everything that they do know.  There is no way to interrupt someone midway into such rambling without being rude.  Such storytellers never pause for an instant to let you make your excuses and get away.  Best just to hunker in until something else catches their attention.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tales of the Whales – May Reading List

"Whaling Voyage Round the World" c. 1848 by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington
This month Book Phantom will be reading about whales and seafaring.  How did I come to this subject?  It’s nearly summer, and time to start thinking about seaside vacations.  However, little synchronicities in my life have been pointing me towards “whale lit”.  First, when I was browsing Books of the Month at Amazon, I came across a recommendation for Galore by Canadian author Michael Crummey.  I was pulled in by the blurb about a strange, pale man cut from the body of a beached whale.  My next sign came as I was reading Swamplandia!.  In the chapters that took place at The World of Darkness theme park, Karen Russell described a ride called the Leviathan in which tourists could slide down into the innards of a great fake whale.  The third sign came when I took my daughter on a field trip to Shackleford Banks last week.  This island was the site of a small whaling community in the 1800’s called Diamond City.  It was abandoned in 1899 after a great hurricane flattened most of the town.  I learned on this trip that North Carolina was the only state south of New Jersey that had a whaling industry of any note. 
My final reason for choosing whale tales is that whaling is in my family history.  My husband’s great-grandfather left the Azores at the age of fourteen upon a whaler and eventually settled in Erie, Pennsylvania in the late 1860s.  In order to give my kids a better understanding of their ancestry, I thought it would be helpful to read some literature about it.
So, the universe was giving me a nudge, and the notion to read about whales emerged from the depths of my subconscious as clear as a tail fin or a spout from a blowhole.  Here are my “Tales of the Whales” reading selections:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

15 Favorite Books from My Childhood

Original Books from Phantom's Childhood
It’s Children’s Book Week, and Book Phantom has been reminiscing about the books on her childhood shelves.  I still have many of my dog-eared and Pepsi-stained paperbacks (most of them cost between 95 cents and $1.25!).  I’m not sure I had very good taste when I was a child.  My mother bought me the best titles of that time (early 80s), many of them Newbery Award winners, but as I flipped through them, I realized that I don’t remember the stories as well as I should.  Perhaps my comprehension wasn’t as developed as it is now.  Perhaps I only read part of them before casting them aside.  The only books I absolutely remember loving to the point of re-reading was Judy Blume’s books.  My copy of Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret is pretty tattered. 

I also remember loving a couple of fluffy books that my mom probably gave away.  I guess they didn’t seem to merit saving for twenty years until I had my own home to clutter with childhood detritus.  In spite of their dubious literary value, I remember details from those books that I don’t remember from the award winners.  Just goes to show you that what appeals to kids is often very different from what parents and critics like.  Kids should always be allowed an opportunity to choose most of their reading, even if their selections make you roll your eyes and fill you with dread of story time.

Here is a list of important books from my childhood:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Why do I dread writing this review?  I was so excited about Swamplandia! – couldn’t wait to read it.  I began reading a few pages but stopped.  I didn’t read it over vacation because I wanted to be alone with it for a stretch (yet I couldn’t be bothered to lift it on the five hour road trip back).  I finished some other books and picked it up in earnest again.  I read.  I got sleepy.  Read some more.  Got sleepy.  What was going on?  I liked the characters.  I liked the concept – it had so much potential and originality.  Why wasn’t I loving this book?

I pushed on because it wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t even bad.  It just made me very sleepy.  I think part of the problem was Russell’s extensive use of metaphor and many self-conscious turns of phrase.  Gustave Flaubert said, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe; present everywhere and visible nowhere.”  I felt that Russell was too visible in too many places.  Sometimes the description of the setting slowed the pace without adding anything to the general mood or tension in the book.  I got “bogged down”, so to speak. (har, har).  Some of her prose was beautiful but pointless.  Some of it didn’t seem to fit in the characters mouths.  For instance, the main character, Ava, muses:
“I tried to imagine what species of bird could make a sound like that.  A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling.  It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity.” 

Beautiful words, but I wouldn’t have put them in Ava’s mouth.  Ava often waxes poetic like this, but it doesn’t sound like a thirteen year old with a substandard education and a sheltered life.  It sounds like Karen Russell trying to dazzle me.  Another thing that slowed the book down was the insertion of historical facts about the Florida swamplands.  These were not seamless – I always felt like they were asides basted in with sloppy whipstitches.  It interrupted the flow of this fantastically original story.